The Mania of Short Stories

It long ago came to my attention that the writing and reading of short stories was an acquired taste as well as a dying breed. It wasn’t until I read the introduction to a collection of short stories that I realized that published authors felt the same way that I did about it. Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union edited a collection of short stories called McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales and expounded on the following idea: short stories with a substantial plot are hard to find these days. 

One of the reasons I never put much credence into modern short stories was this problem exactly. Most modern short stories, that is to say those written after WWII, seemed to be lost in the notion that a short story could only capture a single moment in time, an epiphany or important moment in the character’s lives. There was usually no substantial plot to speak of, nothing to anchor it to any story, and mostly left you feeling as though you had just glimpsed into a world that lent you a little of its time and then sent you away wanting more. These epiphany stories, these single days, were all one kind of short story, but where was the short stories that made authors like Twain, Poe, Faulkner, and Lovecraft stand as classics. Where was the full story, the idea that went from start to finish, the adventure or horror or ghost or mystery or detective story? They all didn’t have to take up hundreds of pages, they could just be what they were, and they sure weren’t getting into the public eye.

Sure, there were the exceptions. You had authors like Stephen King, mightily carrying on the banner of plot-driven short stories, and his success proved that it was possible to take something that wasn’t being done and parlay it into not only success, but movies based on short stories as well. With the success of his films 1408 and The Mist it proved that short story writing did not take a backseat or sidecar to anthologies or giant sweeping opuses like Lord of the Rings when it came to the box office. Yet when it came to finding more stories with plot that weren’t just ‘days in the life’, there was very little to be found.

My creative writing teacher this semester, Ms. Phillips, is constantly telling our class that a story has to have one question answered: why now? Why are the things in the story happening then, what makes that story focus on that time period and that place and in that time. That is the kernel that brings a plot to life and takes the story away from the realm of just a rambling story about an epiphany, a discovery, a single moment of whatever it is, and turns it into a story with full substance that you can sink your teeth into. Somewhere down the line these stories might get called genre pieces but not if they’ve got oomph to stand on their own and sneer prettily at the critics.

(A side note: It’s been my experience anyway that calling a piece or writing a ‘genre story’ is just a snobs way of saying they’re afraid to use the jaws of life to ratchet their mind’s open any further. It’s what I like to call lazy reading habits, literary snobbery and general jackass-ery. )

So in the spirit of supporting the little short stories that could, I have been delving myself deep into the well of short story anthologies. Of course, being myself, I’ve chosen anthologies that have themes I enjoy. The few that I’ve got my claws on are the following:

  1. The Living Dead, edited by John Jay Adams, with stories by Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Joe Hill, Laurell K. Hamilton, George R.R. Martin, Clive Barker, and more. As the title suggests, its an anthology of stories about zombies and has some amazing choices in it. My particular favorites are Ghost Dance by Sherman Alexie, George R.R. Martin’s disturbing Meathouse Man, How the Day Runs Down by John Langan, and Calcutta, Lord of Nerves by Poppy Z. Brite. If you have a weak stomach, maybe not for you, but if you can stand a little core, this anthology has some stories that will knock you the hell off your feet.
  2. Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, editted by John Jay Adams, which includes stories by Stephen King, Octavia E. Butler, Orson Scott Card and Gene Wolfe. While I’m still working through this one, the sort of wealth and breadth of the imagination people have brought to the interpretation of the end of the world here or post-apocalyptic worlds is absolutely intense. My favorite has been so far a story called Bread and Bombs, a post 9-11 take by M. Rickert. This one’s a little more bleak, a little more dense, and hosts a story that’s perhaps one of my favorites ever now, The End of the Whole Mess by Stephen King.
  3. McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, editted by Michael Chabon, which focuses on bringing back the short story with some substance, adventure and excitement. Included in the stories in this volume are originals by Stephen King (sensing a pattern?), Glen David Gold, Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman (another favorite of mine), Michael Crichton, Michael Chabon and Sherman Alexie. So far I haven’t gotten too far into this one, but the first two stories, The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter by Glen David Gold and Tedford and the Megaladon by Jim Shepard have managed to not only thrill me but positively nail me to my seat.

I’ve got two more short story compendiums, Who Can Save Us Now? which focuses on original superhero stories, and McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, also edited by Michael Chabon. I think that I will be purchasing more of this McSweeney goodness as time goes on, as it is fostering in me perhaps some of my best appreciation for short stories that I have found in a long time. That and The Living Dead has brought me back to the notion that while short stories aren’t always the most in depth when it comes to content, they can be brutally emotional in their quick punch to the reader. 

And as if it had to be said, this has only inspired me to more writing. That is, after all, what its all about.

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